Magazine | November 17, 2014, Issue

Touched by the Divine

Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life, by Eric Metaxas (Dutton, 352 pp., $27.95)

Someone who wants to understand why conservative Protestants don’t vacate the public square now that their kind of religion seems to have been so completely routed — can anyone think of a single TV show that portrays them as respectfully as television does, say, homosexual people? — would benefit from reading the last two-thirds of Miracles, which presents the stories of dozens of Christians who’ve experienced miracles. The God who finds your car keys for you is a God who commands your vote.

Which I don’t mean snarkily. Catholics like me have our own stories of the same sort and a belief in the permanent presence of the supernatural that is even more out of step with the intellectual and cultural mainstream. We believe that over there in the Tabernacle above the altar in our churches is the Lord of the cosmos himself, in the form of bread, as the theologians put it, available for conversation or worship; that personal guardian angels watch over us; that hosts of the departed remain intimately interested in our lives and able to help us if we ask them; and that the elderly Argentinian CEO in Rome can tell us what God says without possibility of error (not that he’s done so in a long time).

One might find it all implausible or absurd, and I certainly understand the feeling, but those who believe in a God so intimately concerned for their happiness and so concretely available (and who would, by the way, insist they have rational reasons for doing so) will take Him as the final authority on matters like politics and everything else. The God who saves your sick child, for Him you’re all in.

They remain sublimely indifferent to the massive voice of mainstream liberalism even when it gets rude and starts calling them fundamentalists and bigots. The judgment of the editors of the New York Times does not sway them. They act as if they have a place at the table when their liberal betters haven’t invited them. Because God has.

Secular people of any political persuasion seem to have trouble understanding how religious religious people are. As the stories in Miracles show, they live in a world in which the supernatural regularly, if unpredictably, intervenes — and most of the stories cover matters much more dramatic and serious than lost keys. The greatest value of the new book by Eric Metaxas, a gifted writer who’s gone from scripting VeggieTales to writing biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is this collection of testimonies. It’s a cultural document for those trying to understand the alien world of the religious believer, particularly the Evangelical Protestant, and a devotional for the believers themselves.

He chose the stories of people he knows and vetted them and the details of their stories as well as he could. This, I thought at first, asked more trust of the reader than the writer is wise to ask. I know the author slightly and would trust him with my wallet, but not so far with my assent. I would have told him to discuss miracles for which there is great evidence, such as the Shroud of Turin. There you could have a nice debate on publicly available grounds.

Metaxas chose people he knew who were willing to give their names, and the choice works for his purposes. They’re perfectly respectable and apparently trustworthy people with public positions requiring some sobriety, and yet miracles happen to them. You can dismiss their evidence only by assuming them to be nutters or liars or fools.

There’s the woman, a college administrator now the wife of a college president, who couldn’t find her keys anywhere. She looked all weekend. On Monday, she asked the friend watching her children to pray she’d find them, and there in the driveway the friend started praying. They turned around and there were the keys, sitting at the base of the windshield right in front of the driver’s seat.

You may roll your eyes. It may seem trivial, for one thing. Seems a waste of a good miracle. Parting a small sea so an oppressed people can escape, okay. Saving three young men from execution in a fiery furnace to show a pagan tyrant who’s really in charge, okay. Bringing back to life the Son of God, certainly. But finding someone’s keys? Come on.

It may seem dubious, for another thing. As it happens, I’ve met the woman and know her husband, and would not think either of them likely to lie about such things. They’re both sophisticated enough to know how lame the story sounds. Unlike the charlatan, they don’t multiply the stories or elaborate the details. We would accept their testimony on other matters, and it’s hard to see why we shouldn’t accept it in this. As Metaxas writes, if these stories are “not some kind of evidence for miracles, then what? . . . Are they honestly believed hallucinations? Mere coincidences? Are they lies? Or can they really be miracles?”

#page#He knows the people and believes their stories, and fair enough. In the first part of the book, he offers a popular apologetic to justify his trust. It isn’t as weighty or learned as C. S. Lewis’s in his book titled “Miracles,” but it is a lot easier to read.

It begins with a quote from the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, a line already famous among Christian writers because it is a stupid remark made by a very smart man in a sophisticated magazine. (“Stupid” is my word, not Metaxas’s. He’s politer.) Writing in The New Yorker last year, Gopnik declared: “We know that . . . in the billions of years of the universe’s existence, there is no evidence of a single miraculous intercession with the laws of nature. We need not imagine there’s no Heaven; we know that there is none, and we will search for angels forever in vain.” Metaxas responds in essence with “Really? And you know this how?”

You can make that claim, he argues, only as a dogmatic assertion, for which “there is no rational or scientific basis.” It’s an axiom that lets Gopnik and his allies wave away the evidence for the miraculous. Among the evidence, Metaxas includes not only the testimonies in the second part of the book but also a set of scientific and historical arguments.

The first depends mainly upon the theory of intelligent design. Science itself “points to the idea that our universe could never merely have happened, that it had to have been intended because it has such an overwhelming appearance of design.” If we know there’s a creation, we know there’s a creator, and if we accept that great miracle we can accept any others for which we have evidence. “If we can accept a single singularity like the Big Bang, on what basis can we claim that no other singularities are possible? If God is ‘outside the system’ and can reach ‘inside the system’ to create the universe, can’t he reach inside the system at other times, to do what we would call miracles?”

Which is to say, if you believe in God, you have to believe in the miraculous. This doesn’t bind you to believe in any particular miracle, but it does require you to evaluate a claim with what evidence you have, even if you rule out most or all of the miracles with the Scottish verdict of “not proven.” That’s the standard Christian position. You may prefer the philosophical arguments for the existence of God to the intelligent-design arguments beloved of Evangelicals, but the result is the same, If God exists, miracles happen; God does exist, miracles do happen.

The Biblical miracles, for example (by which he means those recorded in the New Testament, being silent about the apparently more problematic stories of the Old). For these, he doesn’t argue, but explains them as revelations of God’s character and distinguishes them from the counterfeits. The argument, I think, is that these miracle stories make sense in terms of the broader revelation and thus can be accepted. He makes a more direct argument for the reality of the Resurrection, based on the probable reliability of the accounts and the lives of those who claimed to have known it.

The arguments have been made before, though Metaxas presents them well and explores in addition the vexing questions of why some people (and not others) receive miracles, and why they are so often small when greater needs go unmet. But the main value of the book is his collection of witnesses. We might reject their testimony about a miracle, but we would accept their testimony about a murder when a man’s life or freedom is hanging on it. Of course they want to believe in miracles, but that may mean only that they see them when they occur.

– Mr. Mills is a writer and editor. He served as executive editor of First Things.

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